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Thursday, September 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Undercurrent of hostility toward U.S. in Arab world

LONDON — As much of the world paused yesterday to mourn the victims of the attacks last Sept. 11, some Islamic militants gathered to discuss the "positive outcomes" of the violence they claim to reject and to praise the aims of Osama bin Laden.

Anger across the Arab world at U.S. threats toward Iraq and American support for Israel was evident, although passions that had sent celebrants into the streets in the hours after the attacks were muted.

In Iraq, the official weekly publication Al-Iktisadi covered its front page yesterday with a photograph of a burning World Trade Center tower and a headline in red: "God's Punishment."

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank, which had been the scene of celebration after the attacks last year, were quiet, as were the campuses of Tehran, Iran.

But a sampling of opinion shows hostility toward U.S. policy growing even among people who decry the blood spilled a year ago.

Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed said the meeting at London's Finsbury Park Mosque, entitled "Sept. 11, 2001: A Towering Day in History," argues that the attacks were justified because Muslims must defend themselves against armed aggression.

"Al-Qaida turned the tables upside down; if you attack us, we will attack you," Mohammed said. "The way they see it, it's a just war." He said those killed were "war casualties."

Organizers put up banners outside the mosque that read "Islam will dominate the world" and "Islam is the future of Britain."

A dozen or so men with kaffiyehs over their faces stood on the steps of the north London mosque, barring about 50 journalists from entering the building, which is widely regarded as a center of radical Islam in Britain.

Syrian-born Mohammed had warm words for bin Laden and the al-Qaida network, though he said he disagreed with their violent tactics.

"Nobody loves them but the believers; nobody hates them but the hypocrites," Mohammed said.

Egyptian-born cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who has been linked to bin Laden and al-Qaida, attended the event in London.

Abu Hamza, who lost his hands and left eye fighting the former Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, had his funds frozen by the U.S. Treasury for his alleged membership in the Islamic Army of Aden. That organization is linked to al-Qaida and claimed responsibility for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed.

Across the Arab world, there were no large anti-American protests, but there were few memorials to mark the attacks.

From ancient souks to McDonald's, many see themselves headed toward a war forced upon them by an angry superpower pursuing a limited number of religious fanatics.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, many Arabs see the U.S. tilted sharply toward Israel. And now, as U.S. threats build against Iraq, they worry about what might happen if American forces invade again.

"I fear the Americans will turn Saddam Hussein from a criminal into a victim bathed in glory," said Ali El Samman, a religious adviser in Cairo who has counseled Egyptian leaders since the 1960s.

In Saudi Arabia, from where troops sent by the first President Bush pushed Iraqis from Kuwait in 1990, some people said they were stunned when some Americans blamed Saudi Arabia for the attacks after its long cooperation with Washington to fight terrorism.

"Now we are worried that there is a joint American-Israeli conspiracy to weaken Arab and Muslim countries in the name of the war on terror," said Abdulaziz al-Debeikhi, a Riyadh high-school principal.

Feelings are mixed in Jordan, the small kingdom between Israel and Iraq that has long sought to ease regional tensions.

Michael Qura, a 24-year-old Amman accountant, said he felt sorry for the innocent civilians killed. But, he said, "I felt America was getting paid back for its bias against Arabs and Muslims."

"I hope the White House will be hit," said Mohammad Ali Masa'id, a retired Jordanian army officer.

In Cairo, Egypt, Galal Amin, a respected economist and professor at the American University in Cairo, gave a well-received public lecture on campus in which he said there was no proof bin Laden was responsible and questioned the speed with which bin Laden was named as a suspect.

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